April 3, 2018

Moving Beyond One-Size-Fits-All Solutions for Preservation

The following is a note from Tom Mayes, Vice President and Senior Counsel at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, in response to a question we received on Facebook regarding the relationship between self-expression and historic preservation.

In response to a cross-posted CityLab article “Homes are a Language of Self-Expression in Queens,” about the photographs by architect Rafael Herrin-Ferri of owner-modified houses in Queens, New York, Ginny MacKenzie Magan asked a question on Facebook that got us thinking. Magan wondered, “I am very curious how the National Trust for Historic Preservation reconciles ‘the language of self-expression’ with its goals of architectural preservation.” Ginny goes on to say that although she’s not a purist, the houses shown in the photographs where owners blatantly obliterated large parts of their facades make her sad.

How I wish I had a simple answer. In the United States, most preservation guidelines are based on the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation, which are designed to preserve the historic and architectural character of buildings while permitting changes for contemporary uses. The Standards (and comparable standards at the state and local level) are generally very effective in protecting the historic character of a place, and flexible enough to make buildings viable for modern life. I think one reason the facades being obliterated (clearly not in accordance with the rehab standards) makes people like Ginny sad is because we sense the loss of character and design inherent in the changes to the original houses.

But there’s a different value inherent in Herrin-Ferri’s photographs, and that’s the idea that the changes reflected in the photographs are part of an ongoing and living tradition of modifying houses in Queens to express the individuality, cultural background, or sense of beauty of the owners. The preservation field has struggled with community character like this that doesn’t fit within the architecturally based rehab standards. Herrin-Ferri says on his website:

“Although the majority of the houses that are featured here might upset the strict conservationist, it is the author’s belief that this ‘tolerant’ form of urbanism allows the neighborhood to thrive, albeit at the expense of the original architecture. The most important thing to preserve is the human-scale architecture—on pedestrian-friendly building lots—that these houses embody […] To most, these houses will appear to be distasteful, kitschy, ill-proportioned, misshapen, or just plain ugly. There is not one example of classic, well-balanced, architectural beauty in all of the houses shown here. Perhaps the first reason for this is that they are extremely rare in the borough but the more important reason is that, the few that one can find, do not [in the author’s opinion] reflect the evolving everyday, incrementalist spirit of the borough. When so many people from so many cultures with so many different aesthetic preferences co-exist in a tight urban fabric it seems only natural that the streetscape should look like this. For me, these houses represent an urbanism of tolerance."

I note that Herrin-Ferri doesn’t seem to say anything goes. Embedded in his statements are conceptual guidelines for the modifications to the Queens houses based on human-scale architecture, pedestrian-friendly lots, and incremental changes, suggesting that large scale buildings that don’t have these attributes would diminish the character of the neighborhood. One key point for these Queens houses: The owners didn’t generally demolish, but used and changed these houses to fit their needs or tastes. It seems that Queens also has a standard of re-use, not demolition, which seems to me to be a sustainable preservation practice. And these changes may themselves become significant over time.

In a recent symposium at the University of Illinois, “Visions of Authenticity,” I spoke about the idea of authenticity, and emphasized that places seem more authentic when they are part of an ongoing living tradition. That’s what we seem to have in Queens, an ongoing tradition of continuing to use existing houses, with incremental modifications to improve them from the perspectives of the owners. These changes may not meet preservation standards, but they have an authenticity all their own.

“​The preservation field has sought in some cases to move beyond the one-size-fits-all rehab standards to a more community-driven set of guidelines.”

Tom Mayes

The preservation field has sought in some cases to move beyond the one-size-fits-all rehab standards to a more community-driven set of guidelines, and I think this is both inevitable and good. It potentially involves more people in determining what they value about their community, how the community should change, and the level of review that seems right for them. All this seems consistent with the ideas in Preservation for People: A Vision for the Future, particularly, “Altogether a people-centered preservation movement empowers citizens to manage change in their communities whether through stabilizing existing neighborhoods and communities, revitalizing Main Street commercial corridors, or boosting the economies and livability of entire cities.” I’m glad the people of Queens are keeping and reusing their existing houses, and I hope they continue this tradition.

Editor’s Note: The National Trust is highlighting stories that reflect our core belief: preservation is about people. In 2017 the Trust published Preservation for People: A Vision for the Future, which outlines three main principles that guide our work: honoring the full diversity of the ever-evolving American story; nurturing more equitable, healthy, resilient, vibrant, and sustainable communities; and collaborating with new and existing partners. Read the vision document, and join the conversation on Forum Connect—an online community for leaders in the preservation field—to share examples of your work creating a people-centered preservation movement.

Tom Mayes, chief legal officer and general counsel, has worked on the full range of National Trust legal issues since he joined the National Trust in 1986. He received the National Endowment for the Arts Rome Prize in Historic Preservation in 2013 and is the author of the book Why Old Places Matter.

tmayes@savingplaces.org @thompsonmayes

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